The Rosewood Forest: Chasing an Answer

Mike Lawson • Commentary • January 11, 2013

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For those of us who are percussionists, rosewood has always been the standard of sound and quality for marimba and xylophone keyboards. For music teachers that are non-percussionists, you may not be aware of the vanishing act that has been occurring with this valuable resource. Commonly known as Honduras Rosewood, Dalbergia stevensonii is a rare and dwindling species that grows only in Central America and has been the single best choice for marimba and xylophone companies since the early days of J. C. Deagan in the late 1880s. Its amazing ability to produce a full and lush musical tone when cut and tuned is simply unmatched.

Did you know?

What you may not know is we are in danger of losing this wood in the future. And while research has been conducted by many marimba companies to find a worthy substitute, nothing significant has been found to date. Dalbergia stevensonii grows mainly in the tropical forests of Belize (formerly the British Honduras, hence the common name of the wood), parts of Guatemala and the very south of Mexico. Currently, the species is included in the CITES Appendix III list, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. CITES has three levels of classification for at risk or endangered species. This inclusion actually only applies to the forests of Guatemala, not Belize where most of the harvesting occurs. A decision on Belize’s proposal for inclusion of the species under Appendix II will not be made until after the CITES Conference of the Parties in March 2013. Under Appendix II (a listing that would usually apply to all range states where the trees grow), international trade is still permitted but more paperwork is required to demonstrate that the wood has been sustainably sourced. The areas are dangerous to work and inspect since this area of Central America experiences a high rate of violent crime. As a result, illegal logging already takes place there.

Guatemala is roughly the size of Virginia, but this type of rosewood is only found in parts of the county. Belize, where the highest concentrations are, is no larger than New Jersey. Consider that there are no less than a dozen companies, both large and small, that have been building marimbas and xylophones for decades. And this does not account for now defunct companies like Deagan and Leedy, who were building these instruments for 100 years or more. To be fair, Dalbergia stevensonii is also used for other instruments like high end guitars, string instrument fingerboards as well as expensive furniture and carvings like bowls and various wood working crafts as seen below.

What about synthetics?

You can find synthetic percussion keyboards in most band rooms across the country. These come under various names: Musser uses Kelon, Yamaha’s name is Acoustalon, Zelon is used by Adams, and Ross used the name Prolon (recently acquired by Majestic). No matter the name, the formulas are essentially fiberglass with a secret mix of other chemicals. The bars are artificially colored and produce a tuned pitch when struck. This material is very durable, generally stays in tune and is seemingly unaffected by weather. I’ve actually seen instruments where the bar is practically split in two and still plays!

These instruments are generally less expensive than rosewood, although that is not always the case. They were intended for two markets: those that can ill-afford their more expensive rosewood cousins, and for outdoor use. I will revisit this “theme” a bit later in the article. While these instruments offer an alternative to Dalbergia stevensonii for keyboards, the quality of sound is nowhere near that of wood. The truth is, professional percussionists and college percussion programs almost exclusively purchase rosewood instruments.

The science of analysis and discovery has certainly evolved since Jack Deagan began searching for other alternatives in the last century. Keyboard percussion companies have been researching and testing other woods and composites for years. They are all well aware that Dalbergia stevensonii is “on the clock” and its availability shrinks each year. Government oversight and forest certification processes could attempt to manage this resource. And while that would be good, it will increase the price of rosewood, perhaps significantly.

How about other woods?

The research of investigating alternative woods has been in place for a long time. This involves many scientific factors, which most of the builders of these instruments cannot afford or have access to. Plus, testing other woods sacrifices valuable shop time and is expensive.

First, we need to fully understand the hardness (Janka scale), chemistry, botanical structure, physical characteristics, density, specific gravity, moisture content, and the mechanical properties (Young’s Modulus) of Dalbergia stevensonii. That data would be used as a reference standard. A large pool of human resources that includes scientists, wood engineers, suppliers, and expert builders to test other woods would be required to fully exhaust any potential rosewood substitutes. Other types of rosewood have already been tried, and some are more expensive and harder to find. So far, nothing is even close to the tone qualities of Dalbergia stevensonii.

There is one wood, from Africa, that is being used as a low cost alternative for beginner and “school” instruments. Padauk is much softer than the rosewood currently in use. On the Janka scale of wood hardness, it measured at 1,725, compared to the Honduras rosewood at 2,200. As a reference, Southern Red Oak is 1,060 and English Walnut is 1,210. For fun at your next Scrabble party, the softest wood we know of is Quipo, which is a mere 22 on the Janka scale. The hardest wood is Buloke Australian, which comes in at an almost quartz-hard 5,060!

There are thousands of species of trees in the world. Given the scale of research needed to find some alternative wood, certain limitations need to be in place to realistically narrow the search before Dalbergia stevensonii can no longer be used. The range talked about, among some organizations to conserve and protect the species, is anywhere from five to 10 years. However, if this wood moves to CITES Appendix I in the future, its availability will be very limited if at all.

What can we do about it?

Earlier, there was a reference to synthetic bar instruments, which have been produced and sold for decades. The savvy teacher or percussionist can find good quality rosewood instruments for less than the synthetic alternatives. But, rosewood marimbas and even those of padauk, should stay indoors. The unfortunate abuse of rosewood marimbas and xylophones comes from ill-advised use for drum corps and marching bands. Even in nice weather, the sun alone will dry out and crack these bars in just a few weeks outside. Rain will ruin them instantly. Not to mention that the instruments go out of tune with changes in climate and there is nothing you can do about it. Tunable resonators simply adjust the length of the air column to match the bars frequency for the best projection. You cannot actually “tune” the bar by adjusting the tube stops.

Replacement bars are expensive and time consuming, since you have to restring the entire keyboard to replace one bar. More importantly, it uses up a wood that is already limited and in high demand. Below is a list of things we can do as music educators to help give the industry time in finding other woods or new composites that will lessen our dependency on this type of rosewood.

  • Initiate a plan to slow down and eventually stop the use of rosewood instruments for marching band.
  • Become a good steward of the instrument by making sure students use nothing but yarn mallets on rosewood marimbas and nothing harder than the wood for rosewood xylophones. If it dents the bar, don’t use it!
  • Move away from the often-exaggerated practice of high arm movement and harder mallets for “front ensemble” playing. It’s bad technique and damages the bars.
  • Make a real attempt, with your band parents and administration, to gradually replace the rosewood instruments with synthetic bar keyboards for marching band.
  • Place a sheet or instrument cover on all keyboards after use and when moving. It provides some protection from dust which can get into the wood and deaden the sound.
  • Never touch rosewood directly with your hands. The oils from your skin also contribute to deaden the sound of the bar.
  • Once a year, clean the bars with lemon oil or a mild wood cleaning product. You will be surprised how dirty these bars get over time.
  • Never allow students to place instruments, cases, or books on these keyboards. The same is true of timpani. Price timpani heads lately?
  • Make your students aware of the diminishing returns of not caring for these instruments. Share this article with them so they understand the importance of preserving Dalbergia stevensonii, and in turn, the value of caring for their own instruments.
  • My rule has always been, “if its not your instrument, its not in your hands.”

In closing, I hope this article has shed some light on the status of this rosewood. You can help the campaign to eliminate wasting away the shrinking supply of this amazing wood. Dalbergia stevensonii is loosely controlled in Belize, and there may not be as much as we think. Realize the heavy demand for this wood in musical instruments, wood crafts, and furniture, recognizing all that wood comes from an area no larger than New Jersey and Virginia. People don’t go to bed at night worrying about this, it will never make news headlines, and non-percussionists would never be aware. Now you can join me, the percussion community, and the companies that build these instruments in a combined effort to saving this unique, rare, and amazing wood that down to its very fiber is music.

A native of Shamokin, Pa., Dr. Moyer’s articles appear in Percussive Notes and School Band & Orchestra. His solo CD, Something Old, Something New, as well as his multiple publications are available through Alliance Publications, Studio 4 Music, and C. Alan Publications. His latest marimba method, Four Mallet Progressive Literature, was released in 2010 by Studio 4 Music. Dr. Moyer is currently director of Band and Percussion Studies at Texas A & M International University and timpanist with the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra. 

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